1999 Brunello di Montalcino

Since literally before the widely hyped, very ripe 1997s were released, some Tuscany insiders were already saying that 1999 would be at least as good a vintage for Brunello di Montalcino, and perhaps more classic. Needless to say, for the past couple of years I have been thirsting to taste the 1999s; my tastings, all conducted during the month prior to going to press with this issue, did not disappoint. A sizable percentage of wines from this terrific vintage is outstanding, and there are very few out-and-out disappointments.

Tuscany enjoyed a very warm and nearly ideal growing season and harvest in 1999, but with less heat-and, more important, cooler nights-just before and during the harvest than in 1997. Small rains in August were well timed to keep the vines happy. The wines are deeply colored-even by the standards of Brunello-and display more obvious early structure than the '97s, which are generally fleshier wines with a tendency toward roasted, torrefaction aromas, especially those examples from the warmer southern portion of the Brunello zone. But it must be emphasized that the combination of greater babyfat and smooth, fine-grained tannins in many '97s can be deceptive: today the considerable structure of these wines is often masked. The young '99s generally have sound, well-integrated acidity, which gives them very good flavor definition and extends their finishes. And their tannins are typically a tad chewier and firmer than those of the '97s.

Although a few '99s showed signs of almost raisiny ripeness, the wines that missed making the cut in my recent tastings were more likely to be marked down for insufficient ripeness and/or dry tannins. These characteristics are in many cases attributable to excessive yields (as a rule, yields were quite reasonable in '99): some wines obviously spent more time in barrel than the strength of their raw materials could support. And then there are always problems with careless elevage, which has resulted in a handful of oxidized or unacceptably rustic examples. Some lesser juice that did not begin with the concentration or backbone to stand up to extended aging in barrels should clearly have been declassified to Rosso di Montalcino and bottled, and sold, earlier.

Almost no one I talked to about the '99 Brunellos doubts that this vintage should have produced outstanding wines. Those who express reservations about the vintage are really critics of today's Brunello in general. They complain that fewer and fewer wines are like the aromatic but austere and slow-to-open Brunellos of yesteryear, which were often brutally tannic in their youth, even if they had the density and high dry extract to reward extended bottle aging. These wines, they say, had real concentration, which came from low yields. (The clones of sangiovese used in the Montalcino zone-primarily sangiovese grosso-have always ripened well here and have consistently produced darker, richer and more tannic wines than elsewhere in Tuscany.)

Today's Brunellos are frequently darker and denser still, higher in alcohol, fleshier in texture, more heavily extracted, and more likely to be aged in French barriques, a growing percentage of them new. But do they have a real core of material, or does their texture come from overripe grapes, high alcohol, the sweetness of barriques, and/or physical extraction? It is clear that a growing number of wines are both more internationally styled and less brooding in their youth. This may be partly due to the fact that a small group of consulting enologists is responsible for numerous wines in the Montalcino area. Not surprisingly, some early tasting notes on the '99s that I've seen in other publications read like descriptions of California cabernet.

But the Brunello zone has always been home to a wide range of styles based on microclimate variables, clonal differences, and wide-ranging approaches to vinification and elevage. For starters, there have always been important differences between the more elegantly styled and perfumed wines from the cooler north-facing hillsides, and the typically sturdier, richer and more alcoholic wines from the warmer southern portion of the appellation. In terms of traditional vs. modern vinification and elevage, Brunello now offers as wide a range of approaches as Chateauneuf du Pape. Surely, the stiff challenge of selling expensive red wines in the world today has required many estates in Montalcino to craft wines with suppler tannins-either through later harvesting of fruit with riper skins, gentler vinification, use of barriques rather than the traditional larger casks (botti) to soften their wines, earlier bottling, or some combination of the above. Although the minimum aging period in wood has been shortened to two years (it was twice that long when the appellation was created in 1966), Brunello di Montalcino still cannot be released until the fifth year after the harvest (e.g., 2004 for the '99s).

Below are notes on the best of the '99s. Wines that did not rate at least 85 points are listed below, with an asterisk denoting bottles I scored 83 or 84 points.

Other 1999 Brunellos tasted: Abbadia Ardenga, Cantina di Montalcino*, Castello di Argiano Sesti, Corte Pavone, Capanne Ricci, Col d'Orcia, Donna Olga, Donatella Cinelli Colombini*, Donatelli Cinelli Colombini Prime Donne, Enzo Tiezzi, Fastelli, Ferrero, Gianni Brunelli, Il Fortéto, La Fortuna, Le Macioche, Le Ragnaie, Palazzo, Pietranera, Pinino, Podere La Vigna, Ruffino Tenuta Greppone Mazzi, San Filippo*, Solaria*, Tenimenti Angelini Vigna Spuntali*, Vasco Sassetti*, Verbena, Villa Poggio Salvi.